I teamed up with Mike Goldstein, the EZ Dating Coach, to talk about the relationship rollercoaster, and more generally, modern dating and how to invest your time and heart into building and nurturing an emotionally connected and committed relationship.
We covered a lot of things that are important to creating and sustaining a healthy and emotionally intimate relationship, such as:
- What makes an unhealthy relationship
- Why some people are attracted to emotionally unavailable partners who value their independence over a committed relationship
- Figuring out your ideal partner/relationship
- The telltale signs of an emotionally uninvested partner
The Relationship Rollercoaster
One of the most common patterns of an unhealthy relationship is a feeling that you’re on an emotional roller coaster. I define the relationship roller-coaster as a relationship that has a few emotional highs full of connection, fulfillment, and intimacy followed by longer lows of disconnection, and then back up again. Up and down, just like a roller coaster, except not as fun as the theme park you went to as a kid.
While the ups and downs can be addictive to our human brains, these types of relationships tend to be unstable, as you never know whether you’re going to have a strong or weak emotional connection with your partner. This can result in uncertainty that can, in turn, spark still more insecurity.
The longer you ride the rollercoaster, the less your needs are met, and the periods in which they are met grow shorter, resulting in dissatisfaction and insecurity dominating the relationship.
Healthy relationships are like calm waters—imagine a serene boat ride on a river. You look forward and you can see the path before you clearly. The water, while not as flat as glass, is not choppy.
You would feel comfortable riding a boat on that river, right?
Unhealthy relationships are the complete opposite, and like a roller coaster, are full of unexpected twists, turns, drops, loop-de-loops, you name it. You’re never certain what’s going to come next, just like you’re never certain if your partner truly cares for you or will be there for you.
The relationship rollercoaster is built on the tracks of low trust and commitment. Trustworthiness in a partner is when you know you can trust that they will have your best interests at heart. Commitment is investing in the future of the relationship despite other alternatives. The reality is that a happy relationship is impossible without high levels of trust and commitment.
The Development of Emotionally Unavailability
It’s no secret that men are socialized to be emotionally avoidant, as we are taught that feeling and showing emotions is weak. Looking back on historical societal roles and family roles, which were based on a binary gender identity assumption, the woman has typically been the emotional caretaker in the family whereas the man, as the father, is emotionally closed-off.
That’s not to say all those who identify with more feminine roles are emotionally available and all those who identify with more masculine roles are emotionally unavailable, but due to socialization, the former are pressured to fill the role of the emotionally available, emotionally nurturing person and the latter are expected to be the more emotionally disengaged partner and parent. 1
Throughout childhood, children learn what relationships are supposed to look like through observing and experiencing the relationship between their parents and other adult couples. Not to mention the peer pressure of societal norms and messages we receive about how we should be, influence how we are in relationships. Because one parent is pushed to be emotionally available and the other emotionally unavailable, it makes sense that more nurturing partners would pursue partners who were emotionally unavailable—that’s the relational script they were given.
Unfortunately, for people who are attracted to emotionally unavailable people, they tend to internalize that emotional distance as a result of something flawed within themselves. For example, let’s say Avery goes on a date with Dakota, but afterward, Dakota isn’t texting Avery back or reciprocating connection. Avery, with an insecure attachment style, may create a narrative in her mind that she isn’t worthy of connection, and may ask herself why she isn’t good enough, and what she did wrong that caused them to not text her or be interested in her.
The important thing for people who find themselves pursuing emotionally unavailable people is to figure out the emotional driving forces that lead to that attraction.
As Mike says in the interview, it boils down to knowing what your worth is, creating and holding your boundaries, and presenting these boundaries and concerns to your prospective partner in a gentle and understanding way. Neglecting to express your boundaries and standards at the beginning of a relationship can result in continuously not getting your needs met.
Figuring Out Your Ideal Partner or Relationship
Everyone has specific things that they are looking for in a relationship—the make-its or break-its. But it can be tricky figuring out what these are, especially if you are coming out of a long-term relationship, are new to the dating game, or are realizing that your previous standards aren’t cutting it for you anymore.
The Gottman Method helps guide you in the direction of what is going to work or not work for you in the relationship.
- Does the person ask questions about you? Not only on the first few dates but even on dates 9 or 10?
- Are they expressing their admiration and forms of affection for you?
- When you reach out to them, are they responsive? Do they actively engage with you in conversation?
- When conflict occurs, do they calmly try to talk about the conflict and resolve it with you? Or do they avoid and distance themselves?
- How do they communicate about sex?
- Do they ask you about your dreams and hopes?
- Do they self-disclose their fears or share goals, dreams, and difficulties?
It’s not just about whether the prospective partner is emotionally available but also understanding what you are bringing into the relationship.
- What do you need to work on?
- What areas in your communication or conflict resolution or intimacy need extra attention so that you can work with your future partner to create and nurture an intentionally intimate relationship?
Outside of all of this, it’s also necessary to understand that it’s okay to take your time with things as you get to know someone and enter into the dating realm with them. Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Drs. John and Julie Gottman explore different conversations, all important and influential to the foundation of a relationship, over the course of 8 separate dates.
Furthermore, John Van Epp, author of How to Avoid Falling In Love With Jerks, encourages daters to use a 90-Day Probation Period when dating. A research study discovered that around the three-month mark, about half of all dating attraction is altered by the discovery of a newly found characteristic, sometimes enough to cause a breakup of 50% of relationships. 2 Typically around this time, attachment bonds are strengthened and attachment patterns such as emotional distance become more apparent.
Understanding your own personal values and what you want and need out of a relationship, and being able to healthily communicate those to your prospective partners, is going to make finding someone who shares those values, wants, and needs that much easier.
Signs of an Emotionally Unavailable Partner
While these signs can range based on each individual person, there are a few to keep an eye out for so that you can avoid pursuing and committing to a partner who, in the end, is emotionally unavailable.
The first one is based on a phrase by Sue Johnson, “A.R.E. you there for me?”—are you available for me, are you responsive to me, are you engaged with me?
- Are you available for me? If something is going on, and I need you, are you available to be there for me and help me?
- Are you responsive to me? When I reach out to you to discuss something or if there is a conflict, are you working with me to resolve it? Are you responding to my outreach?
- Are you engaged with me? Are you curious about getting to know me, about my fears, my anxieties, my dreams?
Keeping this in mind, a telltale sign that someone is emotionally unavailable is if they aren’t there for you, they invalidate your feelings by dismissing them and telling you not to worry about whatever is bothering you. An emotionally unavailable person will make you feel like your needs and feelings aren’t heard or valued, even in conflict.
Most of the signs, as Mike and I discuss further in the interview, revolve and center around how this person responds to you and how these responses make you feel in your relationship with them.
- Emily Nagoski calls this the “Giver Syndrome” as it often leads to emotional burnout caused by self-neglect that society has convinced us is normal for female-identifying people. It’s not. Part of creating a healthy relationship is striking a balance in which both partners take emotional responsibility for the success of the relationship and offer care to each other. When one partner gives and the other doesn’t, trouble ensues. ↩
- Fletcher, G. J. O., Simoson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). Ideals, perceptions and evaluation in early relationship development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 933–940. ↩